BWW Reviews: With It's Delicious 25th Anniversary Tribute to GRAND HOTEL, '54 Below Sings' Raises the Bar On Cabaret Concert Revues
The Broadway musical Grand Hotel was based on Vicki Baum's 1929 novel and play Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel.) The story focuses on intersecting fraught lives over the course of a weekend at a luxury Berlin hotel. An English language adaptation opened on Broadway in the 1930s, followed by the 1932 Academy Award winning film. The musical (Book--Luther Davis, Music & Lyrics--Robert Wright/George Forrest, additional Music & Lyrics--Maury Yeston, and Directed by Tommy Tune) opened first as At the Grand with very different characters. Its Broadway debut was cancelled. Three decades later, the visionary Tune took the helm of what would be a newly conceived piece birthing a nonstop production of overlapping scenes to give the impression of simultaneous stories. The new creative team overcame difficulties with the show's originators and new talent was brought onboard. The show opened in 1989, garnering 12 Tony nominations and winning five.
On Sunday evening, 54 Below celebrated the 25th Anniversary of Grand Hotel on Broadway in high style with two performances crackling with energy and featuring a talented roster of performers including 13 from the original cast. Splendidly Directed (and Written) by Walter Willison, with Musical Direction by Alex Rybeck, Bass Accompaniment from Ray Kilday, and Dance Supervision by Yvonne Marceau, the delicious production (one really can't call it a concert despite lack of dialogue) was fluid, polished, and imaginative in its use of the room. From leads to the chorus, voices were strong, commitment thorough. In the audience, Tommy Tune must've had a helluva time. We did.
"Grand Hotel . . . always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens, but time is running out."
Willison acts as narrator, briefly summarizing plot turns from a perch at the side of the stage as well as playing Colonel Doctor Otternschlag, a wounded veteran with a morphine habit. The character's drug induced fantasy, "I Waltz Alone," is a lilting music box tune slowed to haze. Willison's performance is imbued with exhausted sweetness. He seems wistful, suffering, adrift . . . I'm flying, but oh the gloom seems bright . . . Dancers move across the back of the club like graceful phantoms.
Timothy Jerome (left) is convincing as the increasingly panicked Hermann Preysing, General Director of a large textile mill, on the verge of losing it all. Preysing holds fast to his integrity (at first) despite Attorney Zinnowitz's (Hal Robinson) best attempts to persuade him otherwise. They sing about a crow at a turn in the road who advises, "take the crooked path, boy, give yourself a break . . ." (Caw! Caw! chimes the chorus--no kidding) "Everybody's doing it," a fatalistic Zinnowitz presses (the effective actor collars his client with practicality) "It's 1928."
Chip Zien (left in photo, below right), on whom I admit to having a professional crush, seems to have a direct line to audience heartstrings whatever role he inhabits. Otto Kringelein is a bookkeeper from Preysing's factory, who mortally ill, is determined to live life well for the first time until he dies. From the moment Zien appears, everything about him--befuddlement at the opulence in which he finds himself to lonely desire for experience, says brave, spent, and immensely good-natured. Even the handkerchief tucked in his sleeve is poignant.
Among Zien's numbers, "Who Couldn't Dance With You?" and "We'll Take a Glass Together" particularly shine. The first is a duet with Flaemmchen (née Frieda Flamm), Preysing's pretty, poor, pregnant, young typist (played by Meg Tolin Piper, right in photo) who wants to go to Hollywood. Both actors are thoroughly charming. Zien as Kringelein, awkward then happy (to him, a foreign feeling); Piper as Flaemmchen, patient and sympathetic. (Dancing is captivating.) The second number, which illustrates intoxication with new friendships including that of charming con man, Baron Felix Von Gaigern (Brent Barrett, above left), Kringelein's ersatz fairy godfather, here literally takes place in the 54 Below bar. Zien is infectiously celebratory. He, Barrett, and the supporting cast create a party one wants badly to join.
Tolin Piper is winning as Flaemmchen, fresh and hopeful despite circumstances; a long way from the desperate, hardened character played by Joan Crawford in the film. "I Want to Go to Hollywood" is blithely appealing. The song has narrow, Germanic range and might be monotone in another artist's hands. Here, we're so involved with the girl's naïve aspirations, bright vocal and super Charleston, it seems melodic. The actress instills her character with grace and warmth.
David Jackson and David White play hotel entertainers, Jimmy #1 & #2. The two are perfectly paired, first rate showmen. This is pizzazz with vintage ease. "Maybe My Baby Loves Me" and "H-A-P-P-Y" arrive polished and buoyant, not a gesture or expression more or less than germane. Really, gentlemen, you might consider mounting an act together. A treat.
Liliane Montevecchi is Elizaveta Grushinskaya, a beautiful, world-famous, hypersensitive, Prima Ballerina of a certain age. (She created the role on Broadway.) The artist's emotional muscle and captivating femininity evoke powerful stage presence. Von Gaigern sneaks into her hotel room to steal a valuable necklace in order to pay debts. The ballerina unexpectedly returns and catches him. It's a coup de foudre, a revelation for both. "I will tell you the truth--I have come here to breathe the air you breathe," he says beginning to mean it. Her reaction is sheer Edward Gorey.
In the duet "Love Can't Happen," the elegant Montevecchi dismisses, suspects, puts aside fear to allow for possibility, flirts, and tremulously accepts. It's quite a progression to observe. The Baron incredulously talks to himself: Is this happening? Barrett's big, resonant voice seduces and confirms. (In a back booth, Tommy Tune appears overcome.) Next morning, Grushinskaya sings "Bonjour Amour!" (Hello to Love!) with the gusto of a woman rescued from a precipice. Life is now worth devouring again. Montevecchi erupts. Her audience goes wild.
As she did on Broadway, Karen Akers plays Raffaela, devoted confidante and secretary to Grushinskaya. For 22 years, she's invested every penny in order to help her beloved employer when retirement comes. "What You Need" overflows with love, not gushing like an American, but deeply invested in outwardly conservative, European fashion; her accent is impeccable. Akers is extremely moving. The Baron is killed defending Flaemmchen's honor. Raffaela knows he will not be at the station to accompany Grushinskaya to Vienna, but cannot bring herself to be truthful. Akers imbues the brief song with as much visceral heartbreak as it will bear. Shoulders back, life goes on, she's needed.
Also featured in the cast are Ben George, Ken Jennings, Penny Worth, Bill Coyne, Joshua Dixon, Nathan Meyer, Chelsea Nectow, and Jackie Walsham. Dancers Erin Marie and Michael Choi, who created their own eloquent choreography, are chic and sinuous.
Kudos to Sound Designer Stuart J. Allyn who not only theatrically surrounds us with the maelstrom of the hotel, but also sees to it the cast is clearly heard in far corners of the room. Mitchell Bloom, Santo Loquasto's Associate on the original production, provided spot-on costumes that blended beautifully with what came from the performer's closets.
Marvelous on all counts.
Photos courtesy of Henry Grossman